Where Futurama and Queen Meet

05 Feb 2009

Despite the fantastical title, this is a blog post about translating into Chinese. Bear with me here.

Although she recognizes its importance, my wife has never been very enthusiastic about studying English, so over the years I’ve tried various ways of encouraging her to study. One of the earliest ideas I had was the TV show Friends. Tons of young Chinese people love it as study material, and ever since my teaching years in Hangzhou, I’ve always felt it’s great for that. (I’m not one of those Friends-bashers.) My wife, however, hated it. She thought it was dumb.

Futurama

Eventually, we found the English TV show that she liked. To my surprise, it was Futurama. Now don’t get me wrong… I love the Simpsons, and I love Futurama, but I really didn’t expect my wife to like it. But she really, really did. (She continues to surprise me on a regular basis.)

So we found the English language TV show she wanted to watch, but she still wanted Chinese subtitles. And so the great “Hunt for Futurama-with-Chinese-Subtitles” began.

This turned out to be way more difficult than I imagined. We asked a lot of shops for a long time, and in the end we only ever found Season 1 with subtitles. In the process, however, I became familiar with Futurama’s Chinese names.

Yes, that’s names, because it has a few. It seems like the most popular one is 飞出个未来. Taken literally, it doesn’t make much sense… something like “fly out a future.” I guess it sort of jives with Futurama’s opening sequence, but what the name is actually doing is approximating the sound of the English word “future” with the Chinese word 飞出. Kinda clever, if crafty transliteration is your bag, but certainly no masterpiece of translation.

The translation I like better is the one I first learned: 未来狂想曲. The first part, 未来, means “future.” OK, fine. But here’s where the interesting part comes. The next three characters are supposed to somehow represent “-rama” in Chinese. Considering that I’m not even sure how to explain what that means in English, I really feel that “-rama” is not easy to translate into Chinese, especially considering that this time the transliteration copout was not used.

The second part, 狂想曲, if broken down into three characters, literally means something like “crazy imagination tune.” It’s a real word that means “rhapsody” (in the musical sense). According to wikipedia:

> A rhapsody in music is a one-movement work that is episodic yet integrated, free-flowing in structure, featuring a range of highly contrasted moods, colour and tonality. An air of spontaneous inspiration and a sense of improvisation make it freer in form than a set of variations.

I think that description matches “-rama” and the feel of Futurama quite well, actually.

Still, if you’re a non-musician like myself, when you hear the word “rhapsody,” there’s a good chance you make this association:

Sure enough, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is 波西米亚狂想曲 in Chinese. I even found a website that translates all the lyrics of the song into Chinese. Just go to this 波西米亚狂想曲 page and watch the text to the right of the video as it plays. The translation isn’t 100% accurate (the translator also wimped out on “Scaramouche”), but it’s pretty decent. And more than a little awesome.

Bohemian Rhapsody in Chinese

Sadly, the 未来狂想曲 translation of Futurama is seldom used, and has even been co-opted by a TV show called The Future is Wild. Ah, well. Easy come, easy go… doesn’t really matter to me.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Nice post! Futurama is such a great show. I’d say that definition of rhapsody is right on the money for ‘-rama’. I think it also implies a sense that you’re doing the thing a lot and maybe for a longer period of time?
    On the subject of the translation of TV show names, I watched a few episodes of Dexter on youku and noticed that, similarly, it also has a few names.
    One is:
    双面法医 Which would be, literally, ‘Double-sided Forensic Medical Expert’. (exciting, no?)
    Another is:
    嗜血判官 Which I can’t really figure out. I know 嗜血is ‘blood-thirsty’, but the only thing I can find for 判官 is a ‘judge in hell’. wtf?
    ‘The Blood Thirsty Judge From Hell!’
    Dudes not even a judge.
    Why not just transliterate ‘Dexter’? I suppose that wouldn’t be any fun though would it?

  2. OED says something different about the suffix -rama.

    it says:

    noun suffix meaning “spectacular display or instance of,” 1824, abstracted from panorama, ultimately from Gk. horama “sight.””

    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=-rama

    I think this etymological explanation is better fit, since the wikipedia article you linked sais it comes from the “Futurama Pavillion” in a World Fair in New York back in 1939.

    I can only guess that Futurama sounds good in English, for what other reason would they’ve chosen it. I think it doesn’t remind me of Rhapsody, but of Diorama or Panorama, things like that, which also have the meaning of “sight” in them.

  3. @Jason: Well, Dexter is his own judge, jury, and executioner. 判官, if I recall, meted out punishment, which is what Dexter does. As for 双面, that’s more like two-faced, which ups the cool factor a little bit?

    Ok, let me take off my know-it-all hat. I’m an ABC trying to find a Chinese language show I can stand to watch (my mom’s extensive collection of soaps do not fit the bill). Any suggestions?

  4. Is there a dubbed version of Futurama? I must confess a desire to hear a Chinese Zoidberg.

    What language (if any) do Amy’s Martian parents yell in, and how would that be handled in the Chinese version I wonder?

  5. @Erik: yeah, I know but translating 双面 more literally makes it sound funnier. 🙂

  6. […] languages: The lyrics to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” transcribed in Chinese. (h/t Sinosplice) […]

  7. And for the fun of it:

    scaramouch: a boastful but cowardly person

  8. 維特利 Says: February 6, 2009 at 3:09 am

    my wife has never been very enthusiastic about studying English

    Interesting, what about her peers expections of her English skills? Should be kind of peer pressure.

  9. When I first moved to China I brought the first two seasons of Futurama with me. I did use it a little with one of my really good classes. I’d imagine it being difficult to use effectively to learn English considering it has a lot of made-up words. Guess it shows how versatile the language is.

  10. Orlando,

    Thanks for that definition. I never bothered to find out what it meant.

    Wikipedia!

  11. 維特利,

    Yeah, you’re right, there is some pressure there. Nothing overpowering, though.

  12. I’m surprised by your wife’s enthusiasim toward English learning . is this part of her charm to you ?
    BTW, off the topic,你有没有想过写一些关于英语、汉语学习方面的书?

  13. ironpoptart Says: February 9, 2009 at 1:53 am

    @coljac: Amy’s parents are supposed to be yelling in Cantonese, but I don’t speak Canto so I don’t know if they really are or if the writers just make stuff up. I wonder how they handle that in the Chinese version too.

  14. triplelatte Says: February 12, 2009 at 10:40 am

    Ha, your wife rules! (I love Futurama too) But it’s relatively advanced material – her English must be pretty good already. What’s her favorite episode?

  15. John,

    from reading different blogs I see that there are two kind of situations in mixed families in China:

    • American husbands speak Chinese with their Chinese wives and therefore wives aren’t fluent in English.

    • Chinese wives speak English with their American husbands and therefore American husbands aren’t fluent in Chinese.

    It looks like that real bilingual families are not easy to find:-)

  16. The latest Futurama movie had a funny (somewaht true) representation of China. We destroy the environment, are obsessed with building things and bribe our way out of anything

  17. […] Commenter 維特利 recently made this observation: […]

  18. Jade Corcoran Says: October 22, 2010 at 12:08 am

    Hi,

    I am trying to download an episode of Futurama (preferably the very first one) for use in teaching an English class in China. I have been able to find plenty of sites through which i can stream episodes, but none where I can download an episode onto a memory stick. As I don’t have an internet connection available in the classroom this is no use. Is there any chance you could send me a downloaded version or advise a website where it is possible to do this?

    I would be very, very grateful as I think the kids will love this cartoon!

    Thanks, Jade

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